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Steak, Salad, Rancor

A pre-election plea for more civil dinner-party discussions

It was a spectacular day in Southern California, where seasons seldom matter—just right for a harmonious alchemy of steak, friends, and red wine. Toss in a Caesar salad and, yum, we had a robust milieu for a patio party. No clouds to obscure the sun, no flies to swarm the food, no humidity to wilt the guests. What could go wrong?

I’d invited a mixed group, a hostess exercise that sends my husband’s eyebrows arching. I am a butterfly who wings in eclectic social spheres, forever the one to cross over. 

My experiments with personality selection usually work out far better than my cooking.

The intention that day was to reward the stalwart volunteers of my husband’s church committee. Our disparate guests had performed chores such as climbing on the church roof to clear eaves, painting doors, pulling weeds, and other necessary tasks taken for granted by the congregation. The group had been steadfast on second Saturday mornings each month, trying to nurture something profound.

Our Irvine home, located on a hill, removes us from the densely clustered chaos of Orange County’s hypersuburbia. Its open plan mirrors our welcoming attitude, and we entertain often. From these gatherings we harvest true friends, sharing adventures, views, and news. Most of the time, laughter rules.

On last-minute impulse I included a casual friend whom I’ll call Red Riding Hood. And on that day she brought her wolf. 

 

My husband and I grew up in the Midwest where shared recipes are ritual, along with the fine arts of porching and waving to the passengers of each passing car. The rules of engagement are fixed: no religion, no politics, no sex. Polite is right and enragement is not allowed. Congeniality resides in the hearts of mankind, a communion that makes good neighbors and friends. The speed of conversation is slow and gentle, like the ocean breeze that wafts across our patio.

Red Riding Hood and partner arrived first among the guests. She smiled and proffered an apple pie in a basket. Wolf brushed past me with great economy of movement, almost eschewing introductions. His big eyes panned our home, appraising our furnishings and art as he prowled, uninvited, like a burglar.

The other guests arrived and filtered to the patio, all fresh and fully alive: a perky blond extrovert with her creamily tanned retiree mate, a chronic-pain sufferer and his faithful companion, two immigrants awaiting green cards, and a self-conscious accountant and her seldom-social husband.

He’s the one who stumbled with an innocent quip during our introductions—and Wolf pounced: “Nationalizing banks, businesses, even General Motors, is not a solution that America deserves. It’s not a solution to the damn Democrats; it’s an objective.”

Those same people are “turning America into a socialist state,” he announced, and “strangling businessmen like me with high taxes and unfunded mandates that strip away my dignity.” He said he would “carry a gun in my pocket, but there’s no room because I have to keep my wallet handy to pay other people’s bills.”

The accountant chimed in: “My clients are all choking on their tax bills, trying to blame me.” Another guest continued, “How can government force you to buy insurance? What will Washington cram down our gullets next?” 

Now Wolf had a battle-ready force. He raged on, biting each word with fury. The Affordable Care Act is “yet another entitlement for the poor.” On immigration: “We ought to build that fence at the border. Out of steel. Bring back that proud industry. Give real Americans jobs.”

Someone tried to survey the group about their heritage, noting that all of our forebears probably had come from other countries. As she pointed in query, she triggered another outburst.

“Pointing is a sign of aggression. Obama does it all the time!”

“So does Gingrich!” someone parried.

And so it continued. As the wine flowed, so did the whining, followed by more vitriol and adamant pouting. Our party had become a bully bitch session, verbal swords clashing in heated air. All of the jousters agreed the president was to blame, but the one-upmanship was exhausting. It was all snap, snarkle, and pop. No respect for the presidency—or the hosts who invited them. Everyone looked like the great white from “Jaws.”

My husband, Larry, retreated behind his grill, shielded from the ambush of mean spirits. I was relegated to refilling the nuts, cheeses, and hors d’oeuvres. I wondered if our guests even knew we were there.

We changed the venue, moving the party inside to the dining room to alter the tone. Larry hurried the steaks, so everyone got medium rare. The Caesar was soggy, but the fries were crisp. I made sure coffee was served quickly. The apple pie was sumptuously cinnamoned and we had chocolate cake. Peace reigned, at least while everyone was chewing.

 

When did diatribe replace dialogue?

That’s what we wondered as we ushered the contentious guests out the front door. So many people have adopted political rants as their personal statements, with scripts borrowed from celebrity complainers and attack ads, that dinner conversation has become divisively difficult. Two rights now make everybody else wrong. Nothing can grow in the shade of this rage. Freedom of speech—in which everyone’s contribution is valued—gets fried. 

My husband and I are considering rolling up our abbreviated concrete sidewalk, installing a gate, and locking up the bar and barbecue grill. Seriously. We might become movie hermits, only emerging from our dark chrysalis to enjoy the sun together, alone. We’ll select our movies carefully to assure a good night’s sleep. Perhaps we’ll see “The Artist” again and again, relishing its golden silence

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.


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